UnRated Magazine


Music ArchivesMusic Archives

Jann Arden: "Feet on ground, heart in hand, and facing forward; that's Jann"

Interview conducted June 2009

by Jackie Lee King

Jann ArdenKnown as Canada's sweetheart, Jann Arden (born Jann Arden Anne Richards; March 27) has been writing and singing bittersweet songs for the past 20 years. Her current CD "Free" is aptly named, because she has shaken off the sandess and takes a picturesque 360 view of the world around her; in essence stopping to smell the roses. It's a celebration of what it means to be alive, and she's known some living. She's received 8 Juno Awards (Canada's version of the Grammys) over the span over 10 albums (8 studio, 1 live, 1 greatest 'hurts'). She is a master wit which sometimes gets her into mischief, but it's all in good fun. Jann currently writes a monthly advice column in Elle Canada magazine and has also authored two books of personal reflections and poetry, "If I Knew, Don't You Think I'd Tell You", released in 2002 and I'll Tell "You One Damn Thing, and That's All I Know" in 2004. She is modest about her success but sings the praises of her family and friends, and a puppy named MIDI. I got to catch up to her before she set out on her Canadian tour in support of her current CD.

Jackie Lee King: So I get to catch up with Jann Arden!

Jann Arden: Oh hell, that will take you about two seconds.

JLK: Just think about it. You've done ten albums!

JA: I don't even know what to think.

JLK: Yeah, it just boggles the mind. Do you ever wonder why you instead of someone else?

JA: Yes. Or people that just do it but they've never hit that mainstream commercial success but it's what they do. They make their way. They rent community halls and put on their own shows and manufacture their own records. You know that kind of work ethic amazes me. I think I don't know what I would have done had this not worked out. I'm very interested in just writing prose you know and I'm working on things all the time that interest me. So, you never know I might just finish these last two records with Universal and take a nice break myself and maybe think about not having to do a record for four or five years and just concentrating on other things. Working on a book. And my parents are getting a bit older. I don't know. I've never aspired to world domination.

JLK: I think if you were a dominatrix, it would work well for you.

JA: Yeah, thank you. World Dominatrix is what I should call my record. I'm really surprised at what I've accomplished and I just kind of shake my head half the time and I think, how did someone like me end up doing something like this?

JLK: That's the amazing thing because I think a lot of artists who are starting out think that they know it all so they arm themselves with industry publications and network with other bands but there really is no universal pattern or rule. You've just got to roll with it.

JA: I think that, I tell people all the time: persistence is the hidden talent.

JLK: It is. Showing up!

JA: Yes. But talent is absolutely subjective. Ten people in a room will give you ten very different opinions about something. Just because people are massively appealing doesn't make them good at what they do. So when you get into selling millions and millions and millions of records there's something that's really not that glamorous about that either because the specificness of the audience is gone. It's deleted and it's just this massive blanket and I think, is that a goal? It's never been one of my goals.

JLK: What's it like staying with one record company for a long period of time [twenty years with Universal]? What has kept you there?

JA: Well, I think they just let me be. I think they have kind of a little number in pencil that they've drawn into the 'we will make this much money column' and I consistently do that, so I think with today's climate the fact that I'm not digging a hole over there, I have no debt with them. The last eight or nine years I've made really inexpensive records. The advent of digital recording changed really everything for me. I haven't dragged the band into a studio to cut live off the floor for at least four records. We do a lot of the footwork-- preproduction and do a lot of programming. I'll put live stuff on after the fact. It's done because I really know what I want from everybody before I even take them in there. But Universal has been very good to me. There's been a lot of people coming and going since I've been at that company and it's been bought twice for crying out loud. And A&M went to Polygram and Polygram was scooped up by Universal so I've made it through three cuts and you know it's probably five or six years since it all happened.

JLK: That's a testament to you as an artist. It's a really great thing to survive.

JA: Like I said it's that bottom line. I have to be a business person. Bottom line is that it's a financially viable thing for them. Because even in Canada for me to do a couple hundred thousand pieces is a miracle for them. So you know I'm probably in the top 3 or 4 percent of female artists selling in this country and that's not a lot of records. And they sell. And you know it's just so crazy. It's nothing. It's like you know the fact that I've toured so much live the past 16 years that I kind of have kept a presence but not to the point where people want to kill me and string me up. I've never saturated any kind of market. I kind of come and go every two or three or four years with an original record and I disappear again.

JLK: How has time affected your songwriting?

JA: I think I'm very interested to see what will happen in my fifties and sixties and going to well then how do you utilize information and you know how that affects songwriting. I think my songwriting is much more-- it's matter of fact whereas if I listen to stuff from fifteen or twenty years ago it's constantly searching and I don't seem to ask myself all those questions now. I write more what's happening and this is how it is and this is how I feel as opposed to that constant yearning which was great and I think it very much defined who I was and what I was doing at the time but I can just tell now with things that I write that I'm not that way anymore.

JLK: What advice would you give yourself, about the future, say fifteen years ago?

JA: Well, I think I would have been much gentler. I would have said just be nice to yourself. Embrace yourself and be kind and you know don't beat yourself up every time you have a misstep and just look at the mirror and really appreciate your face. And hang on to that one pair of Levi's. You're really going to miss them when you lose them on that camping trip. So make sure you have the Levi's. I have to remind myself of that. In 1994, you're going to take a camping trip. You're going to lose your favorite pair of jeans. I wish I could have told myself that.

JLK: Were they that good? Was it like the "Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants"?

JA: Yeah.

Jann ArdenJLK: How do you transition between songwriter and literary writer, referring to what you did with Elle Magazine in Canada? Or even the two books you've written?

JA: I have no idea. I think it's the same thing. I mean, the Elle column-- that was really interesting because the questions he [the editor] would send me-- it was just like are you out of your mind? 'I just went back together with my ex-husband,' okay, there's your first problem in this first sentence.

JLK: Right and I love your responses. You're very quick and to the point.

JA: 'I'm still having the same issues,' and I would just say that you're an idiot. I got all kinds of guff that I was too harsh and yada yada yada, but it's just like, how dumb can you be?

JLK: You're very good at coming up with pithy things like "it's a real weird world, be yourself at all times." Would you ever consider a career in writing pitches or...

JA: ...Hallmark cards, yeah.

JLK: So what's it like having a sit down conversation with you?

JA: Well, I think that banal is always good. Just the mundane is endlessly interesting. Just life-- little insignificant things that's what I revel in. I'm happy if I find a really great book to read that I don't want to put down and just my friendships and my family-- I've said it many times-- is my greatest success. I mean, if I haven't done anything in my life I've got these friends and I've got family -- they sure put you through a lot of shit, but that reflects back to you. I can say, 'well I guess I can't be that bad with these people in my life.'

JLK: Five of the songs on your current CD "Free" are co-authored by Kristyn Osborn of SHeDAISY, and you in turn have co-produced their new CD "A Story To Tell," where the origins of this working relationship planted during "God Bless the American Housewife" the song you wrote for the "Desperate Housewives" sound track?

JA: Yeah. I wrote it specifically for that record and they just literally had phoned me on a Wednesday and said they needed a song by Friday. So I just whipped it off. I had never even seen the show so I went online to kind to educate myself as to who the "Desperate Housewives" were.

JLK: So how did it get to SHeDAISY?

JA: It just was passed on I think because it was a Disney affiliation maybe. It somehow got in the hands of a guy that works closely with Goodman from Lyric Street and he shot the song over to them and then the girls ended up singing it. They had a great video for it that I felt never really got enough play.

JLK: Oh, it's hysterical. I like how each of the sisters plays a couple of the characters in the video. Kristyn really works the whole Edie thing!

JA: They did a good job with the video. I don't know what happened with the record. I think they [record company], for whatever reason, mishandled a little bit and maybe they didn't realize that people weren't interested in buying a "Desperate Housewives" soundtrack.

JLK: Yeah, I've noticed that myself. I get frustrated at the stupidity that goes on sometimes with record labels. It's like, good Lord, you should have been fired years ago. Sometimes they just don't get it.

JA: Well, I feel that way about labels a lot of the time, but if it's done right the system can still work. There's just a better way where everyone has to work together. The labels were greedy for a long, long, long, long time. They know it. I think the public knew it. The perception of a recording artist to be rich. It's so rare for a recording artist to be rich especially when you look at music in the 70s and the 80s where a lot of these writers and performers had really shitty deals. They were getting two or three percent of the net after it was all said and done and at least they got it and record companies were taking 95, 96 percent of the profits. They were recouping back marketing money and everything else from that artist's little teeny percentage. So there's a lot of those guys who were huge back then and then you read about all the time that didn't have any money. You know people that used to sell millions of records.

JLK: Yeah and it's amazing how you know some of them are playing county fairs and trying to make rent sometimes.

JA: Yeah, but you know it has to change. The whole industry has to change. I mean downloading they'll sort it out. People will slowly educate themselves about music about how the whole system needs their income so that we can still make the records. They don't understand that it costs so much money to make them and to get them out there. And they will clue on. Even the kids today that used to download off of wherever [free sites] but now I pay for my music. And I think the tactile thing of albums are coming back. Albums are becoming more popular than ever. People are going into those record shops and they're buying literally everything that is in sight.

JLK: Yeah, I love when I can go in and get deep catalog stuff where it's not just two CDs by an artist. That's always a great thing for me because I like the physical package of it. I like reading the liner notes. I like the pictures. I like the whole package instead of just downloading the song.

JA: Yeah. It is cool that where they're going with the downloading too is that the bitrates are going to get better. You're going to have better quality and I think iTunes is even talking about how people are being able to use the files that they buy. If you pay a little bit more you're able to burn five or six copies and use them in your car and use them in your cottage in your ghettoblaster and have different uses because now it is limited. Some of these files that you get you can't do anything with them.

JLK: Right. They have a limited view.

JA: They didn't know what to do when LPs went away. They didn't know what to do with 8-tracks either. Every time there's been a format change, obviously its cost the consumer an enormous amount of money because they have to re-upgrade their equipment and it'll be the same thing. It'll change. It'll figure itself out. I was talking to somebody at Universal not too long ago and he said you know the only way we're surviving-- and this is one of the biggest entertainment companies in the world-- and he said to me how we're making our money? He said ringtones. Kids are buying ringtones four or five times a week and they're paying between three bucks to seven bucks for ten seconds.

JLK: Wow.

JA: Yeah, they're making money and none of those contractually. We have ringtones in our own contracts, if you've been around long enough. To hear a huge company like that say oh no we're not making it on catalog, we're making it on ringtones-- I find that scary.

JLK: I think record labels really need to reorganize this and figure out how to actually do adapt to a new model because they may go out of business but the artists will still be around. They're going to be putting their music on the net and they're going to be doing independent promotion and distribution and stuff.

JA: Oh yeah. That's not going to go away. That's going to get bigger and bigger and there certainly are very positive ways to utilize the internet and make it work for everybody. They'll sort it out. I mean it's like anything. It's like ooh, everybody's excited about getting these crappy, shitty files for free that sound like hell as soon as you get the volume to three. I mean back in the day. Napster-- I remember you'd wait 45 minutes to download a song if you were on dialup. It was ridiculous what you went through to get your music.

JLK: What about you has changed in your recording process over the years because you look at-- you've been around-- you've released several releases and stuff-- what kind of nuances are different in the recording process this time around?

JA: Well you garner experience over the years I think and you execute your ideas a lot better whereas before I had a hard time making a decision. Now it's once I decide something I'm comfortable with it. I was touching on this earlier with digital technology. I know this great programmer named Bruce Leitl. I'm also the one that brought him to the table with the SHeDAISY girls. I just said you've got to meet him because I think he can create this world for you that's you know really urban but could really lend itself to all these great acoustic instrumentations. I had been working with my guitar player for the last 5 or 6 years and we just came to a fork in the road and had to take it because I felt like we kept doing the same things over and over. Art is like that. You just have to move on. So, we've been working with Bruce. It was a really, really great interesting program and he composes for films and movies and his background is very much in orchestration and these very huge big sounding things and it was neat to see him take all of that and really adapt it to really small acoustic intimate ideas.

JLK: Well, you've always had that big kind of sound. I was just listening to "Living Under June" again and the sound had an almost film like quality. It was more than just a pop album, It had orchestrations on it.

JA: Yeah Ed (Cherney) put together a very good band [for this record], and that was probably why I did one more record after that [Happy? (1997)], where I did go in and record off the floor and that was with Kenny Aronoff and Dave Matthews.

JLK: Well Kenny is great. He was the drummer for John Mellencamp for the longest time.

JA: He calls me from time to time. He's so nutty. "Jan! It's Kenny!" his energy's amazing but I really think very fondly about those times and working with that real human touch because I know there's part of me that really misses that but I know that it's impractical for me to take what I write and go into it that way. Not to say that I wouldn't do it again. I would love to really get my shit together and spend six days in a studio and cut live and just mix it and see what we get but I think I'm too selfish right now and you know I'm really in a position where I really have to do something very definitive for radio here. There's two or three songs that I really have to hunker down on and make sure my label gets what they need. For the Canadian market anyway. That why I can spend the rest of my time being creative and not worrying and Oh God, just trying to figure out the order of what singles goes with this particular record and you know it's such a great sounding record. I had Ed Turney mix it again, so I went back to that fountain of knowledge. He's just so funny and he took a lot of digital information and just turns it into this masterpiece so you'd never know that we programmed this entire record. There's not a real drum within miles of the studio. With Bruce Leitl it's not loops. His background is in drumming as well so he actually plays them but they're triggered obviously by MIDI. He's got a synth that's very live sounding. I love it. Just one those-- my most favorite-- memorable experiences that I've had for like a decade.

JLK: Well I was looking through a lot of the interviews that you've done over the years, but the Twitter ones seem to be a little more...how should I say this...interesting.

JA: There's something wacky about those things. I like the Twitter interviews. It's just crazy. Having ten questions and this other woman kind of surreptitiously listed our conversation-- it wasn't our conversation-- she was kind of harassing me the day Michael Jackson died and she ended up publishing excerpts for this. I was jackassing around. I didn't know the guy was going to drop dead. And my comment was it's so hot in Nashville right now I could cook corn on the cob under my boobs. And she thought I was very insensitive and I was like look I didn't know the guy was going to die. And Jesus, does the world suddenly stop and I can't have a sense of humor because Michael Jackson had a cardiac arrest?

JLK: So there is a quote on your Twitter interview that went something like, "I never had such fun with any living thing. Well, a date in 1989." Who did you have a date with in 1989 that was just so fantastic?

JA: I think I was probably kidding. I wish I wasn't. I wish I could remember a date in 1989.

JLK: Oh no!

JA: It's so fun. Twitter is such a huge format. You just can say the most random things.

JLK: I know. It's just amazing because sometimes you are not sure on what is real or imagined.

JA: Like I kicked Celine Dion's ass at a pool hall. I hit her in the head with a beer bottle. We were drinking too much beer. She tried to steal my chicken wings.

JLK: Yeah, something like that...

JA: That's what I like it because people really don't know. Once in a while I'll have a moment where I'm voicing a little bit of anger or saying something, but for the most part it's a really fun tool. I've certainly met some kooky people on there that have really great rebuttals and I like reading their comments and I'm always really surprised how many people follow me because it's not a half a million or anything but you know. Every day it's like there's another fifty people and it's like who are you?

JLK: Wow, that's cool. Do you feel intimidated by your own body of work and some sort of competition with yourself on this new record?

JA: Not really. I don't think so. I mean, now that you say that to me it'll make me paranoid.

JLK: I'm sorry!

JA: No, that's okay. I just move on from those records. They're all great memories. I think they capture little pieces of my life. I'm up here and I'm up there and you kind of you put them down and you have to really be willing to let go of them and move on. I'm so not the same person when I did "Time for Mercy" or "Living Under June." There's remnants of her, but life kind of bites at your heels like a rabid dog and the other half of the time you don't know what you're doing and when you do know what you're doing you've got people trying to convince you that you don't.

JLK: Right. Oh, I hate that. It's just terrible. So, what kind of person have you developed into now? If you could step outside of yourself see Jann Arden from the outside, what kind of things would you notice?

JA: Well, like I was saying I'm much more decisive. Just in the last couple of years I have a new manager with Bruce Allen. Now he's looking after things for me, which is huge good point. And I rid myself of a company I had been working with for ten years and just severing relationships. I should have done it five years ago but I kind of wait and wait and wait and I think now I just don't wait. I'm not playing wait and see anymore. Sometimes it's much more urgent and but I do need to stand up for myself and make decisions and that goes across the board with everything-- with personal relationships and family and the way I build my house and just deal with day to day life you know I can't just sit back and go oh well you know I will change if I could just sort of wait it out. I used to be much more passive that way and it didn't do me any favors.